Mar 10, 2018

The Education of a Turkey Hunter 

By: Tony Blando

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  

Henry David Thoreau’s passage from his book “Walden” is one of my favorite quotes. When I was younger, I believed that almost all I needed to know to lead a successful life could be learned from my parents or in the woods with Mother Nature.  That line of thinking is primarily why I earned a stellar 1.86 GPA in 1980 during my first semester at the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse.  Frequent tours at the Old Style brewery may have contributed as well. As I recall, I spent nearly the entire semester trapping, hunting or fishing the woods, lakes and streams in and around La Crosse.    

One of the classes I rarely attended was biology because I thought I could learn far more about that subject in the woods than I could in a smelly lab.  I’m sure Henry David would have agreed, but the professor scoring my tests and doling out the grades most certainly did not.  

It is now spring, which means me, and many of you, who were lucky enough to either draw a turkey permit or score a leftover one will be headed to the woods in search of wily old gobblers with long beards and needle-sharp spurs.  We will have nothing more than a turkey vest, the clothes on our backs, a few calls, a decoy and our weapon of choice.  We will also feel blessed that we are in the woods just in time to witness the magical metamorphosis when everything changes from the doldrums of winter to the glorious rebirth of almost all forms of flora and fauna.  

Our senses will be working overtime as we take in the sights, sounds and smells of the spring woods.  We will most definitely feel awesome and we will be flat-out happy to be alive.  Like Thoreau, we will “front” only the essential facts of life and we will learn what Mother Nature has to teach. We are entering the turkey woods and it doesn’t matter how long we’ve been at this game — we are about to learn a whole lot. I wish everyone could experience this.  

Whenever I talk about spring turkey hunting, which is quite often this time of year, I can’t hide my excitement and joyous anticipation of entering the spring woods.   Not everyone shares my joy, though, or even understands where it comes from. I feel like I should pray for them, but I understand they get excited about things that I do not.  

When I talk about turkey hunting, the conversation will go one of two ways.  If I’m talking to a non-hunter, it generally goes like this:  

Friend:  “Blando, whatcha doing this weekend?”  

Me:  “Going turkey hunting.” 

Friend:  “Why don’t you just come over to my house? I have 50 of them in my yard every day. They sure are dumb. They eat everything in my bird feeders and sometimes they come up on my deck.  I can’t imagine it’s all that hard bagging one.”  

Me:  “Yep.  I’ve seen the same thing in my yard, but trust me when I say that the second those birds enter the ‘turkey woods,’ they become one of the toughest targets to harvest.”  

Friend:  “Ha, ha, ha, ha.  That’s funny.  Those ‘elusive’ creatures sure do seem tough to harvest.  I’m going to get one with my car this afternoon.   Better yet, I’ll just lure one into my living room.  You must be a really bad hunter.” 

If I’m talking to another turkey hunter: 

Another hunter:  “Hey, T, you blind hunting or running and gunning tomorrow?” 

Me:  “I’m gonna run and gun.  There’s this 4-year-old who gave me the slip last year and the year before.  The old boy is smart as heck.  I can’t seem to get him within 100 yards.  He always hangs up, and sometimes he gobbles regardless of the call I make, and other times he gets lockjaw. And that joker is a real stud.  He always has a half dozen or so hens with him and it’s hard to compete with the real thing, if you know what I mean. Heck, that rascal was smart as hell as a jake! I’ll bet he has a 12-inch beard and 2-inch spurs.    

Another hunter: “If I were you, I’d put him to bed tonight and then sneak in an hour before first light and set up right on top of him. If you’re lucky, he might pitch down into your set. Odds are, though, that he won’t.  He didn’t get to be 4 by being stupid.” 

The non-hunter will understand very little of what was said during this exchange as there is a major disconnect between those who hunt this wily bird and those who don’t.   The non-hunter thinks the turkey is one of the dumbest birds around and has nothing to teach while the hunter knows that every time he sets foot in the spring turkey woods he is going to get schooled.   

I believe hunters are correct in their assessment of the turkey’s worthiness.  At least some other smart, prominent folks would agree.  There is an old myth that Ben Franklin proposed the turkey as the national symbol instead of the bald eagle. In my extensive research (a two-minute Google search) I learned that ole Ben wrote a letter in 1784 in which he panned the eagle and extolled the virtues of the turkey. In that letter he said, “For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country.” The founding father argued that the eagle was “a bird of bad moral character” that “does not get his living honestly” because it steals food from ospreys and is “too lazy to fish for himself.”   

In contrast, Franklin called the turkey “a much more respectable bird.”  While he considered the eagle “a rank coward,” Franklin believed the turkey to be “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”  

I’ve never heard anyone, other than Mr. Franklin, lay the virtue of courage upon the turkey. What I have witnessed though in my 30 years chasing gobblers is a very intelligent critter with exceptionally keen eyesight and uncanny survival instincts.  He can also run faster than Usain Bolt during an Olympic 100-meter final, and if he busts you, you can’t raise and fire your gun fast enough to harvest him before he’s out of range.   

I’ve been schooled by many a bird since I began hunting them more than 30 years ago, and during that time I’ve harvested many gobblers. You would think that I’d be something of an expert by now and would have little left to learn.  You would be wrong. The truth is that for every gobbler I’ve put my tag on, nine others I saw or at least heard gobble totally outsmarted me.  There are countless ways an old gobbler can outwit us “expert” hunters, and I could personally give a hundred examples of smart gobblers getting the best of me.  You turkey hunters completely understand.   

The reality is that we can perpetually learn a lot from turkeys and turkey hunting — and not just about better tactics, techniques and procedures to harvest them. The infinite knowledge we gain chasing these elusive, courageous, intelligent creatures in the spring woods is immeasurable — especially if we enter the spring woods with our senses tuned to the essential facts of life. 

At Badger Sportsman we wish all of you fortunate enough to score a turkey permit and the time to hunt this spring a safe, successful hunt.  Mostly though, whether turkey hunting or enjoying the woods hiking, fishing, or mushroom or shed hunting, we hope that you go to the woods to live deliberately.   

If you do, we promise that you will abundantly learn what it has to teach.